We’re very hard on Bluetooth headsets here at QTOOTH and the Jawbone ERA is no exception. Here’s our take on one of the most universally praised headsets on the market.
The Jawbone ERA Bluetooth Headset, manufactured by the Aliph company who are also the makers of the Jawbone Up, was introduced as an update from their popular and successful Jawbone Icon. It was meant to have superior audio and to improve on the fit and comfort of its predecessor. Unfortunately in our opinion it didn’t quite do either. Please keep in mind that we have owned several of both models and have used them extensively. It is from this experience that we are drawing our opinions.
First up is the audio quality. The audio fidelity on this might be just fine… except that it is not nearly loud enough. This lack of volume is true for either the user or for the person on the other end of the call. The ERA uses what is known as “adaptive volume” control. That means that the audio level should automatically increase or decrease depending on the volume level of the wearer’s environment. We’re fine with that if the it actually did a good job of matching, or competing with, the surrounding noise. We found that it is lacking in this department. It would be great if there was some way to manually set a base volume level from which the adaptive circuitry could then make its adjustments. Instead the user is stuck with whatever volume the circuit decides it should be. It just didn’t do its job to our satisfaction. We much prefer the quick and easier manual controls that were on the Jawbone Icon.
Second, the positioning of the Voice Activity Sensor is far more finicky than the Jawbone Icon. The Voice Activity Sensor, or VAS (see diagram below), rests on your cheek and turns on the microphones by detecting when you are speaking by the vibrations that are conducted through your jawbone (hence the name).
We’ve found that even small variations on where the VAS is placed means the difference between a normal sounding voice when we speak versus the ERA switching to its conduction mode which essentially makes us sound like a robot. The conduction mode means that the normal microphones are shut off and all audio is picked up only through the vibrations of the voice that are transmitted through the body. FYI: Conduction is the same technology being used for both transmitting and receiving audio with the Google Glass project. It is another of Google’s many feature missteps with Glass’ introduction. Bone conduction just can’t replace normal hearing fidelity experienced by the human ear. However it must be said that bone conduction technology is an absolute miracle when it comes to hearing aids and helping those with hearing loss. Once again, the Voice Activity Sensor feature was far more forgiving and workable in the Jawbone Icon.
Third, we must take issue with Jawbone advertising these as having HD (high definition) audio. HD audio means something very specific and these headsets do not met the criteria. The Jawbone ERA uses the A2DP audio protocol for Bluetooth which is limited to 320 kbit/s for mono and 512 kbit/s for stereo. This means that it is impossible for these headsets to transfer audio information at the rate required to deliver HD audio which is specified as 1,411.2 kbit/s (CD quality) or up to 6.144 Mbit/s (Dolby Digital Plus) or even 18 Mbit/ s. True, there are some “lossless” formats that can be in the 400 – 1,411 kbit/s like FLAC but they are not standards accepted by the industry as being HD. Now that said, 320 kbit/s isn’t bad. In fact, that’s considered to be on the high end for the MP3 format. You know, the quality at which iTunes and similar services decide they can charge you about a dollar extra per track? So, yes, it is good quality audio for the format but to call it HD is very misleading.
And finally, the last thing we want bring up is how they came so close to turning the world of Bluetooth headsets on its ear, so to speak, by the inclusion of motion sensors. Right now they are using this circuitry for a “shake to pair” and “tap-to-answer” functions. Although we find these features fun, they are a bit gimmicky. It would’ve been so cool if it could be used for controlling a cursor, for instance, or for controlling any other type of device by motions of the head. This could also be incredibly enabling for those with motor issues, think quadriplegics or amputees for example. Jawbone says they have plans in the works for a pedometer that utilizes this circuitry and for releasing the API so that other people can develop apps for it, but it’s been close to two years or so and still no word. Maybe they were too busy developing and re-developing their UP Fitness Band. It uses similar electronics and had flaws upon its initial entry into the market. This just seems like a missed opportunity when it comes to the Jawbone ERA.
So, now that we’ve taken Aliph to task for their Jawbone ERA, please know that we are still fans and think that their Jawbone Icon is still one of the very best on the market. There is strong competition from the likes of Plantronics, Jabra, Blue Ant, Motorola and Bose, but Jawbone’s got game. We just look forward to seeing where they might be able to take it next. And if you are going to buy, you might want to go for the Jawbone Icon.
For more details, check out the videos at the bottom of this post.